Goodreads: The Prison Healer
Series: The Prison Healer #1
Published: April 13, 2012
Seventeen-year-old Kiva Meridan has spent the last ten years fighting for survival in the notorious death prison, Zalindov, working as the prison healer.
When the Rebel Queen is captured, Kiva is charged with keeping the terminally ill woman alive long enough for her to undergo the Trial by Ordeal: a series of elemental challenges against the torments of air, fire, water, and earth, assigned to only the most dangerous of criminals.
Then a coded message from Kiva’s family arrives, containing a single order: “Don’t let her die. We are coming.” Aware that the Trials will kill the sickly queen, Kiva risks her own life to volunteer in her place. If she succeeds, both she and the queen will be granted their freedom.
But no one has ever survived.
With an incurable plague sweeping Zalindov, a mysterious new inmate fighting for Kiva’s heart, and a prison rebellion brewing, Kiva can’t escape the terrible feeling that her trials have only just begun.
Possible minor spoilers!
The Prison Healer takes what readers think they know about how YA fantasies work and tries to twist some of the tropes into something new. A protagonist who finds strength in healing, hoping, and helping others, all while keeping her head down and doing what she’s told so she can survive her term in prison adds to the appeal of the story. Unfortunately, the world building, plot, and characterization are extremely illogical, and I couldn’t enjoy the book in the end. The more I thought about it all, the less sense it made. Logic, however, is not a core point most YA readers seem to look for in their books (The Prison Healer has a 4.31 average rating on Goodreads as I type this), so if you’re a YA fantasy fan, it’s likely you’ll love this book even though I didn’t.
The opening of the story has promise. I liked Kiva, a protagonist who freely admits her one talent is healing people. She can’t even claim any “mundane” skills like cooking or sewing, much archery or swordsmanship or whatever other elements of physical prowess one typically sees in a YA “strong female character.” She does what she’s told because it keeps her alive, and she does her job in the infirmary, and she stays out of people’s way. It’s refreshing, and reading about her daily life navigating the prison is interesting.
Then the main plot starts, and things go downhill. Characters are introduced, and Kiva becomes BFFs with them for no apparent reason, even though her “thing” is not being friends with anyone because it’s prison and half of them die anyway. Then there’s the Rebel Queen and Kiva’s decision to volunteer in her stead in the Trial by Ordeal (not a spoiler; this is in the plot summary!). This . . . just doesn’t work. The idea of the Trial by Ordeal doesn’t make sense in the first place; there seems to be no clear reason why it’s sporadically invoked, and it’s basically a show trial since the only way to survive is to have elemental magic, and only the royal family has elemental magic. (This also means the royal family is above the law, since they would all survive it?) And BECAUSE no one ever survives and there is literally no way to survive without magic, I simply could not understand why all Kiva’s friends were so optimistic about the whole thing, telling her she could do it and she just had to believe in herself and be confident and it would be find. There is no reason anyone would ever think she would be fine!
A lot of YA fantasies have the trial plot. Usually the idea is that the tasks are almost impossible but not entirely impossible and the protagonist has some cool skills they will use to triumph against the odds, and readers can cheer for them and their dramatic feats. This isn’t that. This is someone who (to make up an example not actually in the book) is going to jump off a skyscraper without any tools or magic or skills and hope she survives. And other characters are telling her she can do it. By the sheer power of her belief in herself??? It’s all too weird. I spent the whole book wondering if all the characters were out of their minds.
My only explanation for most of the book, and most of the decisions the characters made, was that they were all lying about everything. Some of them must have had different motivations for what they were doing than what they were saying, some of them must know things they weren’t letting on about, etc. I read hoping and praying this was the case and everything would come together in the end. And I think even the author knows logic is an issue because she spends so much time trying to explain things about the Rebel Queen and the world building and the royal family, etc. and make it fit, and yet it never fully does.
The book is fine, I guess. It’s interesting. People will probably like the hunky love interest. I liked Kiva myself, and her 11-year-old helper in the infirmary. I wanted to like the book, but I just couldn’t when so much of it doesn’t make sense. I know I’m in the minority on this point, however, because I always am.